David Bowie

The 'Mercury' Demos

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The Mercury Demos collects the ten songs David Bowie recorded with John "Hutch" Hutchinson in the spring of 1969 with the intent of snagging a contract with the record label. At the time of recording, Bowie was a bit adrift, left without a recording deal after he failed to hit the big time at Deram. His folk trio with Hutchinson and Hermione Farthingale had become a duo once he split with Farthingale, and he didn't have many other label options since he struck out at most imprints in the U.K. Fortunately, he was on a creative upswing, armed with the lovely "Letter to Hermione," the delicate "Conversation Piece," the softly majestic "Janine," and "Space Oddity," the song that would become his calling card. Some of these songs had been in the works for a while -- they can be heard on Spying Through a Keyhole and The Clareville Grove Demos, cumbersome sets of 7" singles that also chronicle other bedroom demos from 1968 and 1969 -- but "Space Oddity" has gained greater shape here and it's paired with sharper originals, along with a cover of Lesley Duncan's "Love Song" which Elton John would later popularize on Tumbleweed Connection. All of the performances are ingratiatingly unaffected: Bowie and Hutchinson laugh, make nervous jokes, and sing earnestly, a combination that's quite endearing. Because the duo sound so amateurish, listening to The Mercury Demos feels like eavesdropping -- and while that's appealing, it's also hard to deny that the album isn't quite revelatory. It's a demo tape, deliberately rough and functional, the kind of thing designed to spark interest from professionals but not meant for public listening. That The Mercury Demos was released officially -- in an absurdly lavish box set filled with tchotchkes, no less -- is a testament to Bowie's enduring legacy, a legacy that effectively started once Mercury heard this tape and signed him to a record contract.

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